Francis' words on sex abuse bolster hope for action

by NCR Editorial Staff

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The directness and urgency with which Pope Francis addressed the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy during his May 26 talk with journalists is encouraging. His decision to meet with victims of clergy sex abuse is also a clear signal that Francis understands the gravity of this issue in a way that was not clear earlier. While we understand, and to some extent share, the concerns of victims' groups that the meeting and Mass with victims could be little more than media theater, we have more hope for the gathering. Francis has given us reason to believe that his pastoral instincts will guide him and that the outcome of this encounter will bring the church to a new place in this decades-long tragedy.

Bolstering our hopefulness is Francis' acknowledgement that he must act against bishops who are complicit in failing to protect children. From his own mouth, we know that three bishops are under investigation. While he did not say whether those bishops are abusers themselves or negligent supervisors, we have the words of the Vatican's lead prosecutor of sex abuse, Fr. Robert Oliver, that the Vatican is working on a process for punishing bishops who fail to protect children.

Furthermore, Oliver said, "Pope Francis is the kind of leader who makes it possible for those who assist him to bring forward ideas. Then he takes hold of these ideas ... [then] the Catholic faithful, and indeed all people, will see that he will act quickly."

Francis is getting good advice from trustworthy individuals and he is beginning to act on that advice. Despite much resistance within the Curia, he has appointed a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that reports directly to him. We're confident that once that commission is fully engaged, Francis will act quickly.

Twenty-nine years ago this month, NCR wrote its first editorial about clergy sex abuse. We said then -- and we've said all along -- that the scandal of this crisis is not only the actions of individual priests, which are horrendous, but with church structures that allowed and, in fact, encouraged bishops and chancery personnel to hide crimes and ignore victims.

From even before his election, Francis has expressed the need for reform of a "sick" church and a clerical culture too often focused on itself. We are confident he is beginning to understand that the root cause of the scandal of sex abuse in the church is the rot and corruption of a clerical culture that is the antithesis of the Gospel. Meeting with victims is essential to that understanding, for only victims can convey the degree of human destruction the abuse has caused and the urgent need for accountability and reform.

A version of this story appeared in the June 6-19, 2014 print issue under the headline: Francis' words on sex abuse bolster hope for action.

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